Obama's challenge: What role for the Clintons?

A roll-call vote for Hillary Clinton at the convention would be 'cathartic,' she says. Then there's Bill.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Team player? Senator Clinton signed autographs after campaigning for presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama in Henderson, Nev., Friday.

The national political conventions, it is often said, have become nothing more than infomercials. And if the Democratic Party has its way, the 2008 convention in Denver will be just that: a four-day, future-focused love-fest centered on the theme of change.

But with just two weeks to go before the opening bell, presumptive nominee Barack Obama is still grappling with how to handle the biggest power couple of the Democratic Party – Hillary and Bill Clinton. Both have now secured prime-time speaking slots during the convention, she on Tuesday night, Aug. 26, as keynote speaker, he the next night, right before the still-unnamed vice presidential candidate.

The trickier issue for Senator Obama may be how to appease Senator Clinton's supporters, many of whom remain sorely disappointed that she lost the close nomination race and feel she has been treated unfairly. Now that it is clear she will not be Obama's running mate, given her speaking assignment, conversations between the Obama and Clinton camps center on whether Clinton's name will be placed in nomination during the first round of delegate voting. The idea would be to allow Clinton delegates the satisfaction of voting for her – the first woman to come close to winning a major-party presidential nomination – before they fall in line and vote for Obama.

"There's this notion she didn't get fair media coverage, and now on top of that, there's this notion she didn't get fair treatment from Obama, assuming he picks somebody else" as his running mate, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "So from the perspective of her supporters, this may be the only element of fairness that can be injected into the whole process – allowing her supporters to have a chance to vote for her in the roll call."

Ms. MacManus believes it would be smart for Obama to welcome such a vote, allowing Clinton delegates and supporters the "catharsis" they want and allowing them to move on and work for the Obama ticket. "The last thing you need is disgruntled delegates, because they're the ones who need to go home and do all the get-out-the-vote work," she says.

Several important swing states – beginning with Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – are rich with older, female, and working-class voters who went heavily for Clinton in the primaries and whom Obama has struggled to attract in general-election polls against the likely Republican candidate, John McCain.

Under convention rules, Clinton must make a written request to have her name placed in nomination. She has put out ambiguous signals as to whether she would do that. A videotape posted on YouTube shows her addressing supporters in California two weeks ago and talking about the need for a "catharsis."

"I happen to believe that we will come out stronger if people feel that their voices were heard," Clinton said. "I think that is a very big part of how we actually come out unified, because I know from just what I'm hearing that there's an incredible pent-up desire and I think that people want to feel like, okay, it's a catharsis, we're here, we did it, and then everybody get behind Senator Obama."

Obama appeared cool to the idea of a roll-call vote for Clinton in remarks to reporters on his campaign plane. "I don't think we're looking for catharsis," he said, but added he's leaving the details to the two campaign's teams.

On Friday, as Obama left for a vacation in Hawaii, Clinton appeared as an Obama surrogate at a campaign event in suburban Las Vegas – her first appearance on behalf of her former rival since their joint appearance in June. "Anyone who voted for me or caucused for me has so much more in common with Senator Obama than [with] Senator McCain," she said.

But forces beyond the two campaigns are also at play in the Clinton-Obama drama. The city of Denver has issued a parade permit to a group called Colorado Women Count/Women Vote for Aug. 26 – the day of Hillary Clinton's speech and the 88th anniversary of women's suffrage. The group plans to march through Denver to show appreciation for Clinton's campaign effort and to urge a roll-call vote on her nomination. Another group, 18 Million Voices, is planning a pro-Clinton rally in Denver as well.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) is planning a feminist gathering – "Women's Equali-tea" – on the first day of the convention to celebrate Women's Equality Day. The guest list features a long line of feminist leaders and women members of Congress. Obama's wife, Michelle, has been invited but has not responded yet. NOW endorsed Clinton early in the campaign, and is still deciding whether to endorse Obama.

NOW president Kim Gandy does not expect a decision before the convention and she endorses the idea of having Clinton's name placed in nomination. "I think it makes it easier for [Clinton backers] to support the Democratic nominee," she says.

One Democratic strategist, who declined to be named, says there are inherent risks in the delicate dance going on between Clinton and Obama, especially given the outsize role of former President Clinton – and his slowness in coming to terms with his wife’s loss in the primaries. But this strategist predicts a smooth convention. After all, if Obama loses in November and the Clintons are seen as partially to blame, that would hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances if she opts to run in 2012.
"It’s a tiny sideshow that could take over the main event if it’s not handled right," the strategist says. "But I think it will be and I think at the end of the day, it’s all going to be fine."

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